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Hot Button: Player Characters Should Never Be Killed

Reading a fascinating Guild Wars 2 design diary about character death penalties [1] (via Penny Arcade [2]) got me thinking about PC deaths in RPGs — and specifically, about why PCs should ever be killed at all.

For your consideration:

Dying? Yawn

In the vast majority of traditional-style campaigns, regardless of the game, PCs almost never die for good. D&D is the main example, and also the source of why this stereotype tends to be true: Most gamers have played D&D, and from that experience have taken away the concept of PC death being an inconvenience at best.

Fuck You, Players

Dying, even temporarily, generally means that the PC’s player is taken out of the action, so the penalty for PC death is applied to the player, and the penalty is not getting to have fun until their PC is brought back from the dead.

No Really, Fuck You, Players

When PC death is permanent, whether due to play style or your RPG/setting of choice, it can be a huge blow to the player who’s impacted. Why should this happen as a result of what’s supposed to be a leisure activity?

Delicious Fudge

Keeping PCs alive is the biggest reason most GMs fudge die rolls, and we all know where any discussion of fudging leads: MADNESS. This contentious issue can be sidestepped by removing the source of the problem, fudging to keep PCs alive.

We Do This Why, Again?

If PC death is a) infrequent, b) penalizes players, c) can emotionally impact players, d) often avoided by GMs, and e) generally just an inconvenience, why should it ever happen without the affected player’s consent?

Universal Doesn’t Meant Good

PC death is a near-universal consequence of bad luck and/or bad decision-making that’s included in the vast majority of RPGs whether it really needs to be there or not, much like PC stats/attributes [3]. By way of comparison, it’s nearly universally excluded from the vast majority of movies, TV shows, book series, and narrative-driven entertainment in general.

You know Frodo will succeed in getting the One Ring to Mount Doom. You know Jack Bauer will save the day in the nick of time. You know Luke Skywalker will defeat Darth Vader. You watch and read their stories because they’re good stories, and because seeing how they pull things off is part of the fun — even though the conclusion is essentially foregone, and not really the heart of the matter.

So: PCs should never be killed. Problem(s) solved.

This is an extreme position, and it’s worth noting that it’s not my personal stand or take on the matter — but my interest in it, and in the issues underlying it, is genuine and goes back at least four years: …And Then James Bond Spends a Month in the Hospital [4].

I’ve wrestled with it myself, I’ve pondered it during and after games as both a GM and a player, and it still fascinates me. I’m not really sure whether it’s right, wrong, needs work, or what.

So here’s one end of the spectrum in black and white: Take PC death off the table, explicitly and permanently, and everyone will have more fun at the gaming table.

Let’s put the biggest argument against this concept right out front: Games without PC death are for…

Glad we cleared that up.

Is that wrong? Right? Crazysauce? Let’s talk.

49 Comments (Open | Close)

49 Comments To "Hot Button: Player Characters Should Never Be Killed"

#1 Comment By Squeejee On December 12, 2010 @ 5:19 am

As a player, I find knowing that I can’t die cheapens the experience. As a GM, I find that treating my players with kid gloves – except for when they’re learning a new system – leads to them not being as engaged in the game.

True, character death can lead to the derailment of an entire session, but that is usually the fault of the player whose character has fallen. Being certain your players understand that you will not grant them unlimited lives can avoid this situation, and having a cast of backup characters floating around the game world can bring a fallen player back into the game very quickly. In a previous game, the backup characters were basically a crew of cohorts.

If you’re having trouble dealing with the thought of your current character dying, try looking at it from a different perspective: your old character isn’t ending, your next character is starting. You have been given the opportunity to try something new, to shake up the status quo of your party and perhaps offer a whole new perspective on the campaign. Relish it.

#2 Comment By RunebladeJack On September 1, 2016 @ 5:45 am

This conversation came up in my game group recently, as I was really interested in hearing what diverse minds considered to be the best value. There were two themes in the answers, (and wow, were they different!):
1) We are playing a heroic story and we should be “Big Damn Heroes”, able to do cool stuff and tell wonderful stories about our accomplishments later. The character death only happens when a player knowingly and willingly places their character into a very dangerous situation knowing that death may result. The idea of dying due to a failed die roll should be limited. Characters getting mauled, however, is fine and part of the game story.
2) This is not a movie, it is a game, and as such, characters die when the dice say they do. Any player whose character that does not use common sense, such as taking cover when the bullets (or arrows, or fireball spells) begin to fly deserves what he gets. Death in dungeon crawls is part of the game, so let the adventurers beware.
My challenge as a GM for these guys was that I am a lover of stories, but my GM style is narrator leaning more toward to improvised, relying many times on sandbox games. I don’t rely on balancing out challenges according to the CR rating for encounters, so in fairness, I usually fudge around character death, and have been criticized by some for doing so. So I adapted. When I changed it up and took off the gloves and started rolling dice in the open, it surprised the players and made them start paying more attention to what was going on. It seemed to keep the game-focused players happy and made the story lovers more cautious, but still having fun.